(Etre et Avoir)

Directed by Nicolas Philibert. France.  2002.

Reviewed by Howard Schumann and Jaap Mees.

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Named as one of the best films of 2002 in the Film Comment poll of 59 international film critics, To Be and To Have provides an insight into the learning process of thirteen children, ages 4 to 10, in a one-room schoolhouse during a seven-month period. The film is a tribute to the innocence of childhood and to the dedication of their teacher, 55-year old George Lopez. Director Nicolas Philibert selected Lopez' rural schoolhouse in the Auvergne region of southeast France from a list of 300 schools. As Philibert explained: "I wanted a school with a limited number of pupils so that each child would be easily identifiable and become a character in the film. I also wanted the fullest age range possible -- from kindergarten to the final year of primary school -- to show the atmosphere and charm of these small, eclectic communities and the very specific work required from the teachers." 

Filming almost 600 hours of the children's daily activities with a crew of four, Philibert allows us to re-experience the long forgotten frustrations of learning how to trace letters, express our feelings verbally, count until we run out of numbers, and get along with our classmates. Mr. Lopez has taught in the same school for twenty year and has a unique ability to simply be with and respect children for who they are and what they say. He is a model of patience and an example of how to listen without making moral judgments or instant evaluations. He says of the teaching profession, "It takes time and personal involvement and the children return that again and again." Most of the children come from families in low income houses or apartments where they haven't had the opportunity for a great education. The film does a great job of showing the parents back at their respective houses or apartments struggling to do their best to solve the mysteries of the child's homework. To Be and To Have is also filled with humour as in a sequence when two very young students are fighting a losing battle with a photocopier and when a student insists on using the word "pal" instead of "friend". Much time is spent observing a pre-schooler named Jojo with a very typical attention span. He is endearing but I would have liked a bit more exploration of Katherine who we find out at the end has a serious problem in communicating. 

Mr. Lopez works closely with each child, showing sensitivity in the way he handles problems as when he asks two fighting students to imagine the effect their behaviour has on others. Time and again he mediates disputes by helping children to communicate with each other as in the scene where he assists two older boys, Julien and Olivier, in understanding the reasons they got into a fight. "You were just testing each other, but then it degenerated, no?" he asks. The film begins in December with footage of snow falling on a herd of cows and continues until the following Summer. By the end we have come to know many of the students. When the teacher announces he is going to retire in another year, the emotion on his face when the children plant kisses on his cheek as they say goodbye for their vacation was felt throughout the entire audience of 800 people. To Be and To Have celebrates the dedication of teachers whose unacknowledged labours make a profound difference in the lives of our children. A film of warmth and humanity, it is the highest grossing French documentary of all time. Job well done, Mr. Lopez and Mr. Phlibert.

Howard Schumann

To Be and To Have (Etre et Avoir)  

Itís really encouraging for documentary makers to see docs like Buena Vista Social Club ( Wim Wenders/Ry Cooder), Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore)  and now the latest success story Etre et Avoir, by French documentarist  Nicolas Philibert, doing very well in the cinema. 

For Philibert it is even  a bigger achievement, because he chooses to make a film about a simple daily subject: a one room school-class with children from 4-10 in the Auvergne in France, guided by their patient, even tempered and humane teacher Georges Lopez.  Philibert follows the struggles and joys of children who are learning to read, wrestling with maths and trying to deal with each other. We follow the pupils like the cheeky boy Jojo, the over sensitive Olivier, whose father endured a serious operation and a quietly  determined Asian girl. The daily life of the children and the kind teacher are intercut with exquisite shots of Auvergne all through the seasons. This gives the film not only a time frame, but also a poetic universality, a beautiful rhythm and breathing space.

Etre et Avoir won a couple of Awards, among them the Best European Documentary Film Award and was a big hit in France. In an interview in Sight and Sound, Philibert says: ď I make a film with my subjects, not about them.Ē  Itís brilliant to see that gentle and subtle films are not always shouted down by over-hyped and loud films.

Jaap Mees

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